Green spaces that exist as a site for gathering all too often become more about a fight to protect them, rather than a place of communion. The East River Park, one of the most essential green spaces and community gathering spots of the East Village in New York City, is one such place, and Eileen Myles has something to say about it.
As Earth Day approached, I called the iconic writer of many forms—poetry, performance, and a previous contributor to Mal Journal, among many other esteemed publications—to discuss their turn towards activism. This is a decisive moment for the park, and with the future of its existence being called into question, Myles is one of many locals who are organizing for the park's protection. In the interview below, Myles spoke about the collective spirit of the fight, and the ways politics and protest can become their own form of poetic expression.
Tell us what’s happening at East River Park.
The East River Park is in my neighborhood, the East Village in New York City. You could more appropriately call it East River Half-a-Park, as the city has destroyed half of it.
During Hurricane Sandy the park was flooded for two hours, and the public housing across the street also flooded. It seems that water didn’t come from the park but rather from further uptown; the city has presented the flooding of public housing as the issue, that something has to be done so that it wouldn’t happen again. In the twelve years since they’ve done nothing to protect that public housing…their attention is very specious.
The city asked people what they wanted. They had them speak about their homes, neighborhood, and green space. We collectively came up with a solution that worked for those people—as well as me personally—and then the city threw that solution out.
Nothing came out of those conversations except for videotapes and photo ops. It was a moment of deep betrayal: being asked to speak on something you care about, and in fact, you’re just being asked to pose, particularly if you have a brown face.
So they’re not actually listening, they’re just recording. Unfortunately I don’t find that so surprising. What I do find especially troubling is that this is all being done under the guise of climate concern.
Climate is the new disaster capitalism. Every fossil fuel company is green, green, green. It has become a new PR opportunity, and a new way to get your hands on public funding.
One thing that is weird about parks in New York is that people come to New York for gems such as Central and Prospect Park, but these parks are basically privately funded. They’re like the Harvard and Yale of New York City Parks: they have endowments. The current head of New York City Parks, Sue Donoghue, was a fundraiser for Prospect Park, and in her the position is essentially a tourist attraction fundraiser. She couldn't care less about parks in poor neighborhoods. We haven’t had an environmentalist at the head of our parks in a long time.
It’s my understanding that they’re planning on elevating the park, or rather, building a semblance of a park on top of the existing park, reminiscent of the Little Island the city recently spent $260 million on.
In so many ways, we don’t know what we’re gonna get. In other locations in the city, like Two Bridges, closer to Chinatown, they were doing a public project and ran out of money. When this happened, they brought someone in for funding and it became public-private. Public-private is the sound of doom. As soon as they call it this, developers are coming in and they are a source of revenue. And by the time they’re finished helping the city they say, “we’ve got to make our money back,” which for them means high rises.
So these spaces will not truly be public.
Not entirely. They’ve already supposedly signed a plan for a giant Olympic-sized pool in the East River, right off the coast where they’ve demolished the amphitheater and all the most glorious old trees and public spaces. That is certainly not for the people of the Lower East Side. What sense does it even make to be putting a pool in a river you’re worried about flooding?
It certainly doesn’t sound logical. How would you say this activism connects with your writing?
I’ve always experienced writing as the real free space in my life. I’ve thought of the mental studio in my life as a quiet place that reflects a busy place. The space where I get to stop the hundred thousand advertising messages, and I take the anxiety in my life and get to reshape it.
And I’ve always considered myself a politically minded person, and politics has come into my work, just maybe not as a hands-on activist. The space of activism is a utopian space that I’ve never lived in before, and I love it. I’m sure I’m not always the best…I’m known for being a citizen, but I’m still a bit of a self-centered writer.
It’s a lot like when I ran for president. What I discovered was that the poet in me, the art writer in me—all the kinds of writers I am—could actually use political information and share it in the same way that I can with whatever it is that makes a poem. Once I become passionate about something, that something and me are not so separable. It becomes a place of very vivid information gathering, where I’m finding other people who care vividly about the same thing.